New leaders must emerge for West Virginia
To say that West Virginia’s 61–58 Sweet 16 loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the 2017 NCAA Tournament stung would be an understatement.
Longtime Bob Huggins assistant Billy Hahn mentioned the hurt when he retired this summer. And Huggins himself still brings it up. (“We missed  shots,” he says. “We only gave them 44. Amazing.”)
Yet WVU All-America candidate Jevon Carter, who had two attempts at game-tying 3-point buckets in that game, has another opportunity this season. He has another shot at a Big 12 regular-season title (the Mountaineers have finished second to Kansas the last two seasons). And he has one more shot at a Final Four (they made the Sweet 16 in 2015 and ’17).
“We’re really young inside,” Huggins says of this year’s team. “We have five guys to play the [power forward] and [center] positions, and they are all sophomores. So we’ll have to rely on our guards. But our guards are really good.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bob Huggins
2016-17 RECORD (BIG 12): 28–9 (12–6)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Gonzaga 61–58 in the Sweet 16
F Nathan Adrian (9.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
F Elijah Macon (6.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
G Teyvon Myers (5.8 ppg)
G Tarik Phillip (9.5 ppg, 3.0 apg)
F Brandon Watkins (4.3 ppg)
WVU has a star in the making in 6'8" forward Sagaba Konate, a Mali native who turned heads last season as a freshman when he had 53 blocked shots and 104 rebounds. “He just needs to work on his offensive skills now,” Huggins says. “He can do it in a drill. Now he has to do it with nine other guys out there.”
Lamont West, 6'8", and Maciej Bender, 6'10", are the yang to Konate’s yin. Both are finesse big men who can stretch defenses with their 3-point shooting. And a hidden gem might be junior college signee Wes Harris. “He has athleticism,” Huggins says, “and a perimeter jump shot.”
Walk-on Logan Routt has been a pleasant surprise. “He’s going to play a lot,” Huggins says. “He’ll probably be the first big off the bench to replace Sags.”
Huggins has a very strong opinion about Carter. “He should be a preseason All-American,” says the coach. “He was the 2016 [NABC] National Defensive Player of the Year. He led us in scoring. He led us in assists. And we had a pretty damn good team.”
Indeed, Carter’s 13.5-point scoring average was supplemented by his 92 steals and 137 assists. He also led WVU in defensive rebounding, free throw shooting and minutes played.
Joining Carter in the backcourt will be Daxter Miles Jr., who averaged 8.8 points last season and had 46 steals. “He’s really worked on his game and is a terrific athlete,” Huggins says. “He’s starting to use that athleticism to his advantage.”
Esa Ahmad, a former two-time Ohio Player of the Year, will also be on the perimeter, but he is ineligible for the first semester. Ahmad was the team’s second-leading scorer in 2016-17 at 11.3 points per game.
Backing up Carter will be 3-point specialist James “Beetle” Bolden and newcomer Brandon Knapper. D’Angelo Hunter, a 6'6" junior college transfer, and sophomore Chase Harler will spell Miles.
This will be an interesting and challenging season for WVU. Gone are team leaders Nate Adrian and Tarik Phillip. The frontcourt will be young. It may take time to jell, although the coach says: “We’ve got the ingredients. We’ve got size.” Then there’s the schedule, which includes an opener against Texas A&M in Germany, home games against Kentucky and Virginia, a trip to rival Pitt and a full slate of Big 12 games.
“One, we need to be as good as we think we are,” Huggins says. “Two, our young guys need to mature — pretty quick. We start with A&M, which has probably the two best bigs in the SEC.”
With Huggins and Carter leading the way, however, expect another NCAA run.